Tagged: data

rhetoric and numbers in various workplace settings

I really appreciated that each of this week’s readings showed how much of a hand rhetoric has in any text composed in the workplace.

Nelson, from Selzers “The Composing Process of an Engineer”, writes his papers so that he can persuade his audience (180). He does this by organizing his papers in ways that appeal most to his audience: He writes his papers in short sentences that he believes are palatable for his readers (Selzer 183), and he “analyzes his audience’s needs carefully” while coming up with the content of those sentences (180). While Nelson does not revise his paper much, he outlines for his papers extensively (Selzer 182), developing a purpose before jumping into writing (179).

In “Engineering Writing/Writing Engineering”, Dorothy Winsor claims that there is rhetoric inherent in all work writing by stating that:

The textual construction of knowledge is social in nature because each document must convince other people of its validity in order to be accepted as knowledge. Only documents that do convince others are used. 60

By also mentioning how Phillips, the focus of her study, prefers to look for material in certain kinds of documents because of their visual natures (Winsor 62), and employs logic in his papers to write himself as an engineer (66), Winsor gives more particular examples of the ways that rhetoric is incorporated into workplace writing, specifically that of engineers.

This isn’t to say that writing with effective rhetorical strategies is easy. As I read Selzer’s paper, I noticed that Nelson, the subject of the study, was good at writing with his process partly because of his familiarity with that process. Selzer writes that Nelson’s “consideration of purpose [had] become ingrained, almost second nature” (180). Nelson learned how to quickly determine the purpose of his papers, or that he may have multiple purposes in a paper, “from experience” (Selzer 180).

I don’t know, though, how long it might take for someone to become familiar enough with something other than writing, like data and tables, so that they’re proficient enough to rhetorically use that stuff to persuade an audience. Writing is something that everyone does fairly often, so it’s understandable that students can learn how to employ rhetoric well not only by writing in their freshman and sophomore college composition courses, but by reading and composing texts at home. On the other hand (and I’m going to use myself as an example for the average person) I may encounter tons of data in the texts I read at home, but I don’t think I toy with data enough there to think that I’m learning much about using it to meet an audience’s needs  or desires.

School, then, is probably where I’d best learn about data (duh). I’ll probably learn more about data by taking part in an internship, too, like the one required with the PWE program. At one point in “Writing and Database Technology” Barbara Mirel gives readers the idea that the workplace can help:

Data-report writers have to experiment with single and combined organizing logics for tabular data displays and multiple drafts. They need to know, as in a case from my consulting experiences, that data reports for marketing purposes may take as many as five drafts of a table…. 388.

Mirel learned from “a case from [her] consulting experiences” what kind of effort went into revising a table – much more revising work, it seems, than someone like Norman would put into a document (184). It doesn’t look like experience with data in the workplace is the best way for everyone to learn about data, or revision, or rhetoric, as the subjects of Mirel’s paper struggled with knowing how to rhetorically adapt data for a situation (387) – but I doubt it hurts.

Then again, the need to present numerical and tabular data in order to best persuade might depend on the particular workplace. I’ve found out by reading each of these papers that rhetoric is essential no matter whether one is an engineer, one of “twenty-five project administrators in a national research laboratory” (Mirel 385), or a businessperson – but does the need to rhetorically present numbers and whatnot vary between jobs? Does a technical writer need to know more about data than an editor, or a grant/proposal writer, or someone else who writes for a living?

10. On Technical Difficulties Removed from Workplace Writing

In Barbara’s Mirel’s preface to “Writing and Database Technology,” she writes, “Interactive data visualizations, data cubes, and enterprise resources management systems did not yet exist for easier data retrieval, analysis and, sharing” (381). This kind of disclaimer certainly dates, but does not necessarily make moot, Mirel’s claims when she says, “If data reports are to serve readers’ needs for recordkeeping and problem solving, the writers’ technological skills must serve their rhetorical aims and strategies” (383) and “When developing reports in an electronic medium, writers’ rhetorical intentions for arrangement are inseparable from their technical skills in implementing them” (289).

In no uncertain terms, Mirel’s claiming that one’s ability to discern and address a rhetorical situation in the workplace is a slave to one’s tech abilities. After discussing the pros/cons of a table or other means of visual data (eg., graphs), Mirel writes of the Detailed Charge Report, “Readers can redesign the row groupings to get this desired arrangement of they use the sort function…But, as noted earlier, few respondents understand the uses of technical capability” (389). I wonder sixteen years after being published, if this can still be reasonably claimed, if technology still reigns as master and there still exists such separation.

Because I’ve not had the joy of actually working-working and have not been instrumental in facilitating the process of data retrieval, discerning appropriate data, arranging, then making meaning of that data (at least to my knowledge), I can only speculate, but if the workable data is tabular and numerical, I suspect modern workspaces are easily prepared to deal with it– in my limited experience with workplace technology, most computers are equipped with Microsoft Excel which can be used to perform tasks that might resemble the composition and manipulation of Mirel’s Detailed Charge Report. Mirel writes that her subjects’ disappointment with the Detailed Charge Report was the result of “invention issues.” She writes, “The report does not select and display key data relevant to readers’ needs. For instance, it gives a fine-grained level of detail on exact monthly and year-to-date costs…But it does not include higher-level figures on variances between budgeted and actual costs…(387). Excel, I think, performs this kind of task without difficulty. Switching between sheets (on the bottom left: Sheet 1, Sheet 2) various groups of data can be shown with tables, graphs, charts embedded in the sheet itself. Because the rhetorical situation can affect the data after the technology produced it, data can easily be changed and the table will immediately adapt to whatever data has been changed or fed to it.

So yes, technology does still reign as rhetoric’s master (in this context), but it’s a nonstarter. The likelihood of a professional communicator incapable to perform the manipulation of data, the tabulation of that data, all with an eye on its readability and visual composition is, I think, slim. However, handling “pressing business problems” (382) still requires collaborative rhetorical strategies to ameliorate. And as an afterthought: Using Google’s cloud technology (using Spreadsheet through its Drive), I suspect, will and, probably has, made this easier.